The Accidental Benedicts

One of the toughest parts of parenting is guiding our kids through the minefield of a culture that wants them to grow up much more quickly than they should. Do we let them wear the same clothes other kids are wearing even if we think the necklines dip too low and the skirts cover too little? Do we tell them it’s okay to lie about their age to get that social media account all their friends have? The Terms of Service say they have to be 13 years old. Do we let them watch the TV show everyone else is watching—the one that’s overtly sexual and glorifies drug use? If we don’t, will they be able to relate to their friends whose parents let them watch and wear whatever they want?

I’m certain that, based on his new book, The Benedict Option, Rod Dreher would give a resounding “No” to the first three questions and a “So what?” to the last. In fact, Dreher encourages parents to shield their kids from popular culture and make no bones about it. “Raise your kids to know that your family is different—and don’t apologize for it,” he says. “It’s not a matter of snobbery. It’s about imbuing kids with the conviction that there are some things that people in our family just do not do—and that’s okay.” As parents who have embraced this idea, we can tell you it works.

Case in point: Around five years ago, my husband and I chose to cancel our cable television subscription. Our family had been trapped at home by an ice storm—our driveway was Zamboni smooth for five full days—and in that time, we did not watch a minute of cable programming, preferring to watch DVDs instead. At that point, we decided we were finished shelling out $100 a month.

I wish I could tell you our choice was part of a master parenting plan to protect our kids from the dangers of popular culture, but alas, it was a decision born of frugality. We didn’t want to pay for a service we rarely used. We were ahead of our time, really. Today, more than one in five households do not have cable or satellite television. Sure, there are things we miss—most live sporting events and the first run of each season of The Walking Dead—but the benefits have far outweighed the cost.

Cutting cable has let us dole out bits of pop culture in more manageable portions at ages when our kids had the maturity and context to understand it. It is much easier to preview shows on Netflix than it was to keep up with what they were watching on cable. We also got rid of what my friends call the “Disney-tude”—the snarky kids that fill much of the kids programming on cable networks. My kids still binge-watch My Little Pony and Pokemon, but they also enjoy watching cooking shows and historical documentaries.

When we unplugged from cable television, we essentially unplugged from the consumer culture too. This has been the most unexpected change. Commercials, designed to make us feel like the things we have are not useful enough, pretty enough, or cool enough, are more than an annoying interruption or an opportunity to grab a snack from the kitchen. They tell us what we need is more stuff, better stuff. The first Christmas after we cut the cord, our kids had trouble making a Christmas list. Without commercials telling them about all the cool toys they didn’t have, their wants were quite simple.

Parents also can do their due diligence to make sure a TV show is kid-appropriate only to have their good intentions blow up once the commercials start rolling. I’m sure we aren’t the only parents to have to answer, “What is erectile dysfunction?” during a televised NASCAR race. Even network TV shows are a minefield when commercials for more adult programming run during family shows.

We watch less TV now than we did as cable subscribers, and the television we do watch is much higher quality and reflects our values. With cable, we would idly surf the channels looking for nothing in particular. Now we only watch what we want to watch when we want to watch it. While none of us has defended a doctoral dissertation or qualified for the Olympic Trials in the marathon like this over-achiever (whom I admire), we are all reading more books, playing board games, and enjoying hobbies. Unplugged from pop culture, I have not kept up with the Kardashians nor seen a single episode of The Bachelor. I flip through fashion magazines and have no clue who the starlets are that everyone is talking about. Yes, I sometimes feel out of touch, but I truly don’t care. Surprisingly, neither do my kids.

Critics want to write off Dreher’s prescription for counterculture Christians as too hard, and yes, some of his suggestions are hard. It would be a major upheaval for any family to move to an insular Benedict Option-type neighborhood or take the kids out of public school. Each family faces different challenges, and sometimes the hard choice is the right choice. However, for most of us, embracing Benedict Option ideas means being intentional about the cultural content our children consume and about ensuring that the teachings of our Christian faith are transferred successfully to the next generation.

As Ross Douthat says in The New York Times, “One might also think of the Benedict Option not as an absolute demand — to the monastery, go! — but as an invitation to sort of religious ratchet, in which people start from wherever they are and then take one step toward a greater rigor and coherence in the way they marry faith and life.”

We are an accidental Benedict Option family—unplugging from popular culture was not our goal when we cut the cable cord—but we have found that withdrawing from TV culture has helped us instill in our kids the values we want them to have as adults. We are proof that even small steps toward a more intentional faith can yield big results.

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